The Retreat by J. Eijkelboom

Sep 15th, 2011, in News, by

Jan Eijkelboom was trained in England to 'fight against the Japs' but, as it happened, he was drafted to fight in the Indies when the Japanese had long gone. He arrived in Java in the middle of 1947 and served there as a sergeant for 2 1/2 years. In later life he functioned, inter alia, as editor of the renowned/notorious Amsterdam student paper "Propria Cures" and the leftist weekly "Vrij Nederland". Apart from his journalistic activities he has published about half a dozen bundles of poetry. I have translated here his 'short' story "The Retreat" ("De Terugtocht") that was first published in 1953 in the literary magazine "Libertinage". It is rather a long "short story" and this is only the first part. Two or three more are to follow.


'The Retreat' by J. Eijkelboom

‘Aye, there's something in writing 's like armour to the feelings.’

- Trader Horn

To talk about the impression that Soemiati made on me, the first time I saw her, I have to try and remember something of the house and its other inhabitants. When one uses the word brothel one thinks of a somewhat shabby luxury: flowery wallpaper, threadbare silk, mirrors with frames of which the gilding starts to loosen. There it was a bamboo house, the floor was of rammed down loam and the only light came from an oil lamp made from an Army tin.

The brothel madam was a shrunken old hag, but her ugliness was different from that of her European colleagues: she was repellent without inducing respect. After having greeted us with a shrill voice like that of a bird, she limited herself to looking at us with her small eyes of a witch that has served her time above a mouth opened in a wide grin. In her upper jaw she still had one gigantic dirty white tooth that, misled by the scanty light, I took at first to be a cigarette butt sticking to her lip.

She did not negotiate. Perhaps that was also because we were whites, moreover soldiers, against whom she couldn’t do anything anyway. On a bench were seated four or five shyly giggling girls who had their arms around each other’s neck. On the opposite wall from them there was a row of low doors giving access to as many little rooms. My companion disappeared into one of them with the girl he had pointed at and who was then pushed forward by the others. I didn’t find any of the remaining girls attractive so I tried to start a conversation. At that moment Soemiati appeared from one of those little rooms. She looked already different from the girls on the bench because she was wearing a dress instead of a sarong and had her hair loosely hanging over her shoulders, but even more so I was struck by her lively sparkling eyes. She looked curiously at me, without fear but without gauging me.

It seemed, even in this environment, improper to separate myself with her without further ado, but before I had said anything she invited me herself to enter her room.
Some weeks before that I had started to court a Eurasian girl whom I had met at the house of the army chaplain. I sometimes came there to play a game of chess and she was often there because she had been given the role of Mary in a nativity play for which the chaplain had taken the initiative. I had offered my cooperation and got, perhaps out of respect for my atheism (because that chaplain was a liberal chap) the role of Herod.

But the girl turned out to be unapproachable. She was too conscious of the fact that she was not a ‘native’ to even be amiable. I would of course have been able to get her down on her beautiful knees by all kinds of attentions, entreaties and adjurations, so I thought, but I decided pretty quickly to find my pleasures somewhere else. For the rest I discovered later that the girl concerned had had since long an affair with the chaplain.

So it was the consideration that paying is so much more hygienic than conversation that had brought me Soemiati; but I immediately felt my deficient command of her language to be an obstacle. I couldn’t do much more than asking for her name and saying that I found her beautiful. She seemed, as a matter of fact, to find this quite sufficient for that initial stage.

She took her dress off and put it neatly over the back of a chair. This energetic approach did not make a businesslike impression though it wasn’t an expression of passion either. She was quite skilful in the game of love but, again, there was nothing in this skill that seemed like routine, but also very little that looked like rapture. It is conspicuous to me that I am continuously trying to suggest how she was by stating how she was not. I believe that nothing is so difficult to define as that what appears to one to be the simplest thing

Later, when I was lying beside her, talking went much better. To amuse her I told her of my mistake about that one tooth of that old woman. When she understood my story her merriment was so noisy that it became painful; she was drawing out her screams of laughter like a prostitute. But under the light of the small kerosene lamp that was placed on a shelf above our heads her skin had the bronze colour of a beach that is still moist after low tide. I told her that I had no money with me but that I would bring it to her next day. I don’t think that she was disappointed; she gave at any case no sign of it.

The next morning, when I brought her an amount of money already that had to surpass her expectations, she neither hid nor exaggerated her joy at this. Somebody else of her sort would surely have found it necessary to use either of those tactics. She was too artless and intelligent for that. I am sure of this because I can still clearly recall the expression of her face at that moment. I can now read in this what then hardly penetrated to me, because I didn’t think about things at that time.

Almost every day then I had to accompany a convoy, with my section of bren gun carriers, over a road in which there were most of the time a few mines; there were often also aerial bombs that the enemy brought to explosion with the help of a long rope. Further more there were sometimes grenades in the trees hung from a pulley rope that could be lowered when there was a vehicle underneath. The methods were primitive but effective enough to make of such a trip with a convoy a nerve racking experience.

The tension was so great that most of us lived in a strange, unreal atmosphere when there was no driving. The relief to have got off scot-free that day and the fear for the next day made me too restless and preoccupied. That is perhaps why I can remember so little of Soemiati in that time; between the few sharp images I have retained of it are blank periods of indefinite duration. I still know that on the road I could sometimes be fiercely longing for her but she was then above all the symbol of a safe arrival.

One of those homecomings is still clear in my mind. At the convoy ride that day a bomb was detonated right in front of my carrier. The driver couldn’t brake any more and the carrier slipped into the hole that the bomb had created. Stones and lumps of clay that had been thrown vertically into the air fell back on us. The three other people in the carrier got of with some bruises; only I got a light head wound.

After a medic had cut some hair from the middle of my skull and sprinkled some penicillin powder there we could go on. When Soemiati saw me that night she got straight away into convulsions of laughter. It took a while before I understood that her merriment was caused by my irregular tonsure. I tried to laugh with her but it was only half-heartedly. I started to report what had happened but Soemiati was obviously not interested.

“What would you have thought if I had been killed?”

I finally asked.
She looked at me incredulously and then shouted:

“But that is not possible, is it?”

“Why not? I can die just like anybody else, can’t I?”

“No you can’t!”

she answered impatiently.

“But I can. Of course I can.”

“You can’t, you can’t”

she repeated stubbornly.
I went on, patiently and cruelly and somewhat amazed, with explaining to her that quite a few people of my company had already been wounded or killed and that the same could happen to me any day.

She repeated her blind protest a few times, but increasingly more weakly. Finally she shouted with a voice half strangled by tears:

“Good, it can happen perhaps, but it shouldn’t, it shouldn’t, it shouldn’t …”

With a wild movement she hid at my breast, but at the same time she was hitting my back with her small fists. I pulled her head back and kissed her reluctant mouth.

Her lips soon became passive however, but before she could become willing she pulled her head back to wipe the tears from her eyes and blow her nose. Then she looked smilingly at me, in a manner that suggested that I had entered the room just a minute ago. She had felt uneasy during the conversation that had just taken place, and thus that conversation simply never happened.

I was certainly in love with Soemiati but not enough to be preoccupied with her. Otherwise why didn’t I try to get to know a bit more about her past? She was herself also very vague on this point but more from a lack of interest, so it seemed to me, than because the memory of her youth was repellent to her or because she had to hide something (when I think of what happened later I am no longer so sure about this). She had been married off in her tenth or eleventh year when “she still had no breasts”. A few years later she had run away because she was beaten every day. After that she had married and divorced two or three times more. She hadn’t been able to obtain a separation letter from her last husband, because he wasn’t willing to spend a "rijksdaalder"on that. When she told this latter bit her eyes still sparkled with rage, but the rest was told in an indifferent matter-of-fact voice.

I can’t remember how long it took before I took care to get her a house in a less impoverished kampong. In our soldiers’ world that was a sort of marriage announcement; with that I made it known that henceforward others had to leave her alone. This did not mean that others would not pester her. A certain category of soldiers made it their business to go after women who were maintained by others; they assumed, not without logic, that such women would be “safe”. Soon enough soldiers were spotted near Soemiati’s house during my absence. I redoubled my vigilance.

I approached her house each time from a different direction, which was made possible by the chaotic way in which the kampong had been built. I also came there at the most unexpected moments, one time even in the depth of a moonless night when the house was no more than a faded spot on the velvet dark. I believe that it is still possible to report what happened on that occasion.

When I knocked she asked in a sleepy voice who it was. Without answering I knocked again. I heard creaking and rustling inside; it sounded so loud in the silence of the night that my suspicions were immediately increased tenfold. I forced the bolt with the butt of my carbine and pushed the door in with my shoulder at the same time. She stood there in front of me, fearful and all at once clearly awake. “What is it?” she asked nervously. –

“Nothing”, I said briefly; I was ashamed of my rash behaviour but did not know at that moment how to apologise for it.

Her mouth tightened into a straight stripe of rage. She put a bowl with fruit for me on the table with a thud, fulfilling her duty as hostess to clearly underline my rudeness, and then disappeared into the adjoining bedroom stamping her feet. I went after her but remained standing in the door opening. She had thrown herself headlong on the baleh-baleh. After a few minutes I bent over her and touched her shoulder, but she shook off my hand as if it were an insect that had bitten her.

I went back to the other room and started to automatically peel a jeruk. A while later she called asking whether I had cigarettes with me. This did not necessarily signify reconciliation because she was addicted to smoking. I went to her, gave her a cigarette and helped her to light it, letting the matchbox drop on the floor. When I picked it up I had a quick look under the baleh-baleh; there was nothing to be seen there.

A few hours later, when we had long since made up, I could not refrain however from asking her why she already intended to open the door before she knew who was actually there.

“I could have been somebody from the tentara to murder you,”

I added to this; it was a thought that only came to me that very moment and that served more as an apology for my bad behaviour than as an expression of my care. She shook her shoulders and did not react any further and I was finally wise enough to leave it at that.

The rumours became however more and more definite. They were finally so pertinent that when I visited Soemiati next I started to make violent reproaches. Her defence was no less violent than my accusation though she certainly must have been sometimes unfaithful during that first period. She no doubt found in her defence against my dramatics, that made of her offence a crime, the means to convince herself of her complete innocence.

It became a scene full of stupid malice, followed by a feeling of infinite repugnance. Soemiati was sitting in the low chair in which I had pushed her when I came in. The real quarrel was finished but the poisonous atmosphere remained behind. I picked up my carbine and wanted to go but first, I don’t know why, I pushed the kerosene lamp to the edge of the table, thus bringing Soermiati’s face from the shade into the full light.

She stared at me with panic fear in her widely dilated eyes, and directly after this she threw herself in one movement at my feet. I stood rigid with fright. I only understood what caused her sudden fear when it finally dawned on me that she was begging for her life: she thought that I was planning to kill her. I flung the carbine into the furthest corner and carried her in my arms to the other room. It took a long time before she calmed down but during that night a tenderness entered into our relation that has made it more valuable and vulnerable.


See Part 2


87 Comments on “The Retreat by J. Eijkelboom”

  1. avatar David says:

    In my search for a thumbnail picture for this (Arie’s) post I did find this

    which is supposedly a brothel in Batavia. And this lady

    I don’t want to get all feminist or god forbid feminazi (fembot is my preferred term though) but I do wonder what happened to the girl in the story after Eykelboom went home. Perhaps this is told in the next parts of the story but I’m sure a Post Colonialist Feminist Studies academic would have an absolute field day with the ‘exploitation’ talk here, although there are sort of two sides to it aren’t there, I mean the girl has her own interests and isn’t forced presumably to be with him…

    It is fascinating to read these stories.

  2. avatar Oigal says:

    Very interesting stuff..
    I have often thought about doing a post on the working workers nothing to Ari level but it fascinates me, the differing levels, attitudes and approaches. After this time plenty of real stories. Jus not sure how to do it without it coming of like another tacky version of Jakarta Suck…..

    Fact it is often not just a commercial transaction but always curious the way both sides rationalize what is going on. The mistress aspect is very interesting almost an honored profession as long as certain social mores are observed.

  3. avatar bonni says:

    Where are the other parts of this story?

  4. avatar Lairedion says:

    Indonesia has had a long-lasting influence on Dutch literature but most are dealing with either the classical colonial stuff of Multatuli or the issues many repatriated families of mixed Indo-European descent have struggling with after forced to leave Indonesia during the 50’s. I wasn’t familiar with this approach, the Dutch soldier being sent to Indonesia to restore order after WWII in the ever-chaotic “Bersiap” era.

    It is indeed an interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

  5. avatar stevo says:

    Thanks for posting that Arie. Its a very unpretentious and human story. I am looking forward to more.

  6. avatar berlian biru says:

    So somethings never change.

    A callow young man visits a brothel, sees a beautiful prostitute and convinces himself that he loves her, she, being good at her job, convinces the young man that the feelings are mutual.

    He “takes her away” from her job, but the lady, being after all probably quite hardened by her experiences in life or simply in need of more cash, continues her trade. She is now able to attract a better sort of client now that she is out of the brothel and mistress of her own apartment.

    Young man, being away from town a lot is eaten with jealousy and instead of simply walking away with his dignity intact and chalking it up to experience he starts to obsess about his relationship. Does she really love him? Is she really cheating on him? He starts spying on her, checking her whereabouts eventually violence will enter the relationship.

    Happens all the time, it’s happening in Jakarta right now, it will never change.

  7. avatar Arie Brand says:

    BB
    I am getting a different impression of this relation – but I have read the whole story.

  8. avatar berlian biru says:

    Then I look forward to the next installments, forgive my cynical outlook but so far I feel I’ve seen this all before.

    I await in anticipation.

  9. avatar ET says:

    I’m also curious how the story ends.

    She stared at me with panic fear in her widely dilated eyes, and directly after this she threw herself in one movement at my feet. I stood rigid with fright. I only understood what caused her sudden fear when it finally dawned on me that she was begging for her life: she thought that I was planning to kill her. I flung the carbine into the furthest corner and carried her in my arms to the other room. It took a long time before she calmed down but during that night a tenderness entered into our relation that has made it more valuable and vulnerable.

    This is the fishy part. In this moment she sweeps the young man off his feet by a dramatic but completely out of proportion gesture. The balance of power is suddenly and violently but seemingly irrationally toppled in her advantage and leaves him week and vulnerable. Psychologically she now has the upper hand and the imprint of the fearful event on his memory will hold him hostage. From now on feelings of tenderness will blanket his suspicions, whether right or wrong. Common tactics like this are hysterical suicidal outbursts like attempting to throw oneself out of a window or rushing in front of oncoming traffic.
    A variant of the Stockholm syndrome.

  10. avatar Lairedion says:

    BB,

    What are you really implying with “I’ve seen this all before”?

    ET,

    What is your point?

  11. avatar stevo says:

    Happens all the time, it’s happening in Jakarta right now, it will never change.

    Not just Jakarta, but all around the world. It is bit like reading the Dating Indonesian Girls thread. Times may have changed, but people have fundamentally stayed the same

    That is one of the things I like about the story. He is giving an unselfconscious account of , his perception, of events. He could have put a different slant on the story that would have made him look like less of a sucker. Instead he is being reasonably open and honest about his feelings. Soemiati’s dramatics have the desired impact and he reports that openly. Lets see what happens next 🙂

  12. avatar Arie Brand says:

    This is the fishy part. In this moment she sweeps the young man off his feet by a dramatic but completely out of proportion gesture.

    Why “out of proportion” ET? Him picking up his carbine and bringing her all of a sudden into the light could, after the violent scene they had, reasonably lead to her fear that he was going to use his gun on her. There was obviously no mutual trust yet in this relation – and what later came about of that precious article was destroyed “by circumstances beyond their (or rather: her) control.”

    There is, seeing the rest of the story, no doubt in my mind as to who was the real victim here – and it was not E. who could comfortably return to Holland and start with his studies at the University of Amsterdam (where he still was when I started there – I never met him there though).

  13. avatar berlian biru says:

    What are you really implying with “I’ve seen this all before”?

    What part of it do you not understand?

    It’s an extremely common scenario, you hang out with expat guys around this town and you encounter it all the time. Sad guys who convinced themselves that the sexual relationship that they were having with a girl in return for money was not as it appeared and was in fact a real love-match. The men continue to delude themselves in this way and set the girl up in a nice place to “keep them safe” while they are away in the oil-fields or overseas and then discover to their horror (they surely must have known all along) that the girl is in fact exactly what she appeared when the guy first met her; a prostitute, willing to have sex with men for money.

    I drives them into a frenzy of anger worse even than most men whose wives have cuckolded them. They start obsessing about the girl, checking her emails, phoning her at all hours, making her change her handphone number, going through her sms messages, arriving unexpectedly at the apartment. It never changes, you see these silly blokes whining over their beers in Kemang or Blok M all the time.

    I’m surprised you have never encountered the phenomenon, it’s extremely common. I’m just mildly amused at the fact that judging from the story it is something that has been going on for a long time.

  14. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Perhaps a common scenario but certainly not a universal one – at any case in my view this case doesn’t fit in it.

  15. avatar Oigal says:

    Also kind of sad and cynical BB. No all women hence described are ‘willing to have sex for money’ particularly in Indonesia (and similiar) circumstances, society and religion often playing a large role in forcing that particular journey.

    No one would disagree that there is a very fine line between the hunter and hunted in many areas of town never the less the somewhat sanctimonious ‘once a slut always a slut’ would be wrong as often as it is right.

  16. avatar bonni says:

    Sluts are human too…

  17. avatar Lairedion says:

    BB,

    It’s funny how you compare a story from 1947 with the usual bar endeavours in Kemang and Blok M (I know there are bules who look beyond Jakarta).

    What I heard from my father, my aunts and uncles and pretty much their generation the WWII, Bersiap and independence eras were very traumatic times for both the locals and the young Dutch men totally unprepared to the tropical and alien conditions.

    Given this I think it’s way too easy for ET to slash Soemiati being fishy as some pseudo-hysterical.

  18. avatar ET says:

    My point is that in passionate relations sweeping someone of his feet with an unexpected violent reaction is a common tactic to seize power and control the relation. Ask any psychiatrist.
    It’s interesting to note that the story proves that this phenomenon is of all places and all times.

  19. avatar Arie Brand says:

    My point is that in passionate relations sweeping someone of his feet with an unexpected violent reaction is a common tactic to seize power and control the relation.

    ET, under the circumstances her fear seemed to me rational and genuine enough – and so it obviously also seemed to Eijkelboom – who was on the spot and not stupid.

    I don’t know why you insist on seeing a deliberate strategy in this. In the later suicide attempts (still to come) there was a sort of desperate ‘strategy’ – the strategy of the powerless.

  20. avatar berlian biru says:

    never the less the somewhat sanctimonious ‘once a slut always a slut’ would be wrong as often as it is right.

    You can perhaps point to me where I made such a sweeping generalization?

    I make no judgment of the young lady in question, or anyone else in similar situations, she and they must do what they see is best for their own interests. I was commenting along a general line that there is nothing new under the sun and the situation this couple find themselves in is similar to many situations today.

    I was questioned what I meant by this statement and I elucidated further. I was in no way being “sanctimonious” about the women, merely being somewhat jaded about the sort of chap who ends up in such a predictable situation and then cries into his beer about it.

    That was all.

    For the record I happen to know a few very happily married couples who met in similar situations and for whom it has worked out. I am glad for them but mildly impatient with the type of guys for whom it doesn’t work out and who then work themselves into pathetic rages of jealousy and occasional violence.

  21. avatar ET says:

    I don’t know why you insist on seeing a deliberate strategy in this.

    I don’t know if one should call it a ‘deliberate‘ or premeditated strategy. It could well be a spontaneous and unconscious reaction in a situation perceived as critical. Much depends on the type of personality involved. Under stressful circumstances narcissistic types are known to cope with their environment this way. Narcissistic rage is the uncontrollable and unexpected anger or panic that results from a narcissistic injury – a threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or worth.
    Of course this shouldn’t be taken as a clearcut diagnosis of the girl’s psyche, only as a possible explanation for her erratic behaviour after the quarrel.

  22. avatar Arie Brand says:

    merely being somewhat jaded about the sort of chap who ends up in such a predictable situation and then cries into his beer about it.

    You must have read a different story.

  23. avatar Arie Brand says:

    only as a possible explanation for her erratic behaviour after the quarrel.

    ET, we must agree to differ on this. If I have had a violent quarrel with someone and he then picks up a gun and puts a lamp in my face I might, in my own erratic way, also fear that he is going to do me in. Could be a case of ‘unconscious narcissism’ but, more likely of the very conscious urge to get myself, not at his feet, but the hell out of there.

  24. avatar ET says:

    ET, we must agree to differ on this.

    Fair enough. The trouble with verbal or written accounts of certain facts is that their interpretation is always contaminated by personal perceptions or experiences of the audience. I suppose this is also valid for BB’s comments and analogies with Kemang or Blok M circumstances.
    I suppose this is the reason why capital cases are handled by a jury to eliminate these biases as far as possible.

  25. avatar berlian biru says:

    You must have read a different story.

    No I commented on the first part which you posted and then extemporised from that to situations which I have encountered in the present day. Nothing more.

    Heavens above, there’s an awful lot of twitchy, cranky people posting here today. What’s got everyone so pernickety around here?

  26. avatar Oigal says:

    Oh BB, you certainly did not ‘Once a Slut…but to fair I think that was a fair summary of your first post. It was just an observation that your take seemed pretty cynical and i missed the bit in the first post that sometimes ploughing in the field of dreams actually works.

    I actually admire the guys (and girls) that take the risk to better what in many cases has been a pretty sh*tty hand that life has dealt despite the naysayers.

  27. avatar deta says:

    Heavens above, there’s an awful lot of twitchy, cranky people posting here today.

    Probably because the story itself emphasized a lot on the emotion states of the characters. We’re a bit too carried away 🙂

    But speaking about “interests”, Soemiati was no way on the same platform to compare with nowadays’ Indo girls (all other things being held constant). She struggled day by day merely to save her life with war going on and all. And choosing deliberately to have relationship with someone from the enemy’s side with the possibility of him taking her life anytime (“Anything can happen in war”), was clearly not based on any particular interest. Stupid, even.

  28. avatar Lairedion says:

    Perhaps BB can relate to the story in a certain way, hence my question to him. 🙂

    And BB, I’m aware of the expat-local girl antics. A sort of tourist attraction you only need to see once to know enough.

  29. avatar stevo says:

    A sort of tourist attraction you only need to see once to know enough.

    With an arrogant and dismissive attitude like that, I seriously doubt either the girls or the expats would want you back a second time Lairedion.

    Typical of you to see the story as yet another platform for your moralising and judgements. Your like the IM Taliban.

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